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Back You are here: Home Columns Columns Allyn Hunt Debate about James K. Polk continues today

Debate about James K. Polk continues today

The debate (at least one of them) about James Knox Polk, the eleventh, and seemingly very efficient, president, has to do with his pro-slavery inclinations mixed with his eagerness for a “war of choice” – rather than one of necessity.  Most Polk enthusiasts tend to ignore the fact that he was both a good friend of Sam Houston and a long-time slave master.  And though he privately declared he would free his slaves (when the economic moment was right), one of the last things he did as he was dying of cholera in 1849 was to order the purchase, in secret, of six more young slaves.

Regarding his war of choice, his modern supporters have argued that Polk wanted to grab the Republic of Texas, which was pressing for Washington’s annexation.  Polk, often alluding to the avid interest Britain (and France) expressed in acquiring the break-away portion of what had been the New Spain province of Coahuila-Tejas when Stephen F. Austin, began bringing 300 American families into the territory in 1821.   New Spain had been seeking settlers to form a buffer against roving, highly dangerous, bands of Comanches and other indians who ruled much of the territory north of the Nueces River.  

An adamant expansionist – the term “manifest destiny” had not yet become popular – Polk was carrying on delicate if stern maneuvers with Britain regarding the Oregon Territory in what is now the Pacific coast of the United States.   He was elected president by focussing on the need to secure the Oregon Territory (today’s states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, parts of Montana and Wyoming, and extending, in his mind, all the way north to the southern boundary of Russian-held Alaska).  During his campaign, Polk minimized his true target, the Texas “problem,” until after he was elected.

Polk believed he had to strike as soon as possible.  Washington, despite the number of experienced  non-government “Mexico hands” available, was amazingly unknowing about Mexico.  That lack of knowledge was about to cost thousands of U.S. and Mexican lives, and help lead to the American Civil War. 

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